Pankaj Mishra returns to this blog after a longish absence. His column reviews two books (THE SUBTLE BODY: The Story of Yoga in America,
Stefanie Syman and THE GREAT OOM The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, Robert Love) and upon reading it, you have the impression that it is yet another opportunity for Mishra to heap predictable scorn on Yoga and Hinduism. And he gets it very wrong very early:
But then, as two new books on the strange history of yoga in America show, even the most esoteric and ancient spiritual tradition mutates weirdly when it meets a modern culture pursuing happiness with ever diverse means.
We have a case where the authors of both the books have gotten it wrong because Mishra bases his entire column on these books. Either that or Mishra is being his usual misguided-missile self: misreading, and misleading.
As I’ve shown in an earlier post, Yoga has been badly mauled today. To call it esoteric is, well, a Mishraesque concoction. In addition, the mutation that Mishra mentions is no mutation: the American culture, which needs newer fads to feed itself doesn’t need anything to mutate. What Americans follow in the name of Yoga is neither the pursuit of happiness nor Yoga. It’s not even fitness. It’s just a fad.
After meandering for sometime with a few quotes from the book, Mishra proclaims that
Still, this conflation of yoga with the Kama Sutra — India’s most famous exports to the West prior to information technology — would have startled not only its Brahman practitioners in the Himalayas or along the Ganges but also the sages of Walden and Concord who first embraced Indian ideas of nondualism, the indivisibility of mind and matter, and the essential oneness of the universe.
Mishra would have us believe that only Brahmins (Brahmans/Brahmanas) practice Yoga in the Himalayas. We’d like him to show us some evidence as to the non-existence of people of other castes who practice Yoga in the Himalayas or along the Ganges. To address his “conflation” bit, anybody with even the basic theoretical knowledge of both Kama Sutra and Yoga would call Mishra’s bluff. The end of both Yoga and Kama Sutra is Moksha. In other words, you cannot view any concept of Hindu philosophy in isolation. Remember, it’s the West that interpreted the Kama Sutra as a Sex manual, the author of which was a celibate. What does that tell you, Mishra?
Turning his attention to the second book, Pankaj Mishra drops these precious pearls:
The earliest Indian vendors of spirituality, like Swami Vivekananda, who lectured on Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, looked down on the asanas, or poses, of hatha yoga as a defective path to yoga’s goal: the union of the individual self with the divine Self.
Isn’t it interesting how he reduces Swami Vivekananda to a mere “vendor of spirituality?” Given Mishra’s stellar record it is entirely possible that:
a) He has read Swami Vivekananda’s works in full or in sufficient depth.
b) He feels highly elevated by showing the world that Swami Vivekananda was “after all a human being like you and me.”
c) Both a & b
Because it’s superfluous to comment on the secret workings of Mishra’s mind vis a vis Swami Vivekananda, let’s find out for ourselves what Swami Vivekananda said about Hatha Yoga.
But the main part of the activity will lie along the spinal column, so that the one thing necessary for the posture is to hold the spinal column free, sitting erect, holding the three parts — the chest, neck, and head — in a straight line. Let the whole weight of the body be supported by the ribs, and then you have an easy natural postures with the spine straight. You will easily see that you cannot think very high thoughts with the chest in. This portion of the Yoga is a little similar to the Hatha-Yoga which deals entirely with the physical body, its aim being to make the physical body very strong. We have nothing to do with it here, because its practices are very difficult, and cannot be learned in a day, and, after all, do not lead to much spiritual growth. Many of these practices you will find in Delsarte and other teachers, such as placing the body in different postures, but the object in these is physical…The result of this branch of Yoga is to make men live long; health is the chief idea, the one goal of the Hatha-Yogi. He is determined not to fall sick, and he never does. He lives long; a hundred years is nothing to him; he is quite young and fresh when he is 150, without one hair turned grey. But that is all. A banyan tree lives sometimes 5000 years, but it is a banyan tree and nothing more. So, if a man lives long, he is only a healthy animal. One or two ordinary lessons of the Hatha-Yogis are very useful. For instance, some of you will find it a good thing for headaches to drink cold water through the nose as soon as you get up in the morning; the whole day your brain will be nice and cool, and you will never catch cold. It is very easy to do; put your nose into the water, draw it up through the nostrils and make a pump action in the throat.
Please spot a single syllable in this paragraph that shows the Swami “looking down on the asanas” and calling them a “defective path to Yoga’s goal.” If anything, the Swami clearly says that Hatha Yoga is beyond the ambit of his current focus (Raja Yoga). He neither recommends it nor condemns it conclusively. If anything, he actually recommmends taking a few lessons from Hatha Yoga. Mr. Mishra, words have meanings: “to look down upon” means “belittle, condemn.” Clever phraseology fools no one.
After hurriedly dumping Swami Vivekananda, Mishra rambles on, paragraph after paragraph resembling a Quoteathon interspersed with tidbits of his own “commentary.” He says nothing we already don’t know: the Hippies and the new-age guys completely tarnished Yoga…blah blah blah…Yoga is now equated (he says “demoted”) with fitness…more blah blah blah…middle class America made it hugely popular in the ’90s and so on until he gets to this:
But such a fetish of the “authentic” assumes that people in the country of yoga’s origin have upheld a timeless and unchanging yoga rather than practicing what Wendy Doniger, the distinguished historian of Hinduism, calls the world’s greatest “have your rice cake and eat it” religion.
Note the barely-disguised tone that, addressed to Americans, says: listen guys, don’t get worked up. You know, it’s ok, it’s just the so-called puritans that berate your Yoga. Back home in India, they’re equally screwed up. Even they don’t know what real Yoga is. And lo! who does he quote? The High Priestess of Chicago School of Indology, who has left us no record of calling Christianity “have your wine and drink it” religion. We’ll examine this in a bit when we get to what Mishra says next:
It was in India that the tradition of Tantrism first exalted the human body as the source of this-worldly liberation.
Really? And what evidence does Mishra give in support? Nothing. Nobody. The importance of the physical body as a vehicle for spiritual liberation was emphasized in the Vedas as I’ve briefly shown in the past. And further, writes Mishra,
The generation of semi-Westernized Indians who brought about the renaissance of yoga in the early 20th century were themselves syncretists, combining ideas from both East and West. Even the physical aspects that dominate yoga today are partly reimports from the West. T. Krishnamacharya (the South Indian teacher of Indra Devi), B. K. S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois borrowed from gymnastic postures introduced to India by British colonialists.
Again, Mishra doesn’t care to explain what the curious beast called “syncretist” is. Interestingly, he calls B.K.S Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois as Yoga teachers while elsewhere in his article, he takes pains to explain what “true” Yoga is:
…yoga, which in India, the country of its origin, is identified as one of the six main schools of classical philosophy as well as a form of intellectual training, ethical behavior, meditation, alternative medicine and physical culture. (The Sanskrit word itself means “union,” of the individual self with the cosmic Self.)
Mishra needs to make up his mind: either his understanding of Yoga is incorrect or BKSI and Pattabhi Jois are real Yoga gurus. Either way, Mishra contradicts himself.
In the end, Pankaj Mishra does what’s best known for: writing ultra-long pieces that serve as the perfect vehicles to confound, contradict, dismiss, mislead, and generally tax the brain to the utmost. In this case, the reader will take away this message about the “essence” of Yoga–that it’s all about prolonged lovemaking, nonstop bedroom athletics, deeper orgasms, oral sex, and “have your rice cake and eat it.” Perhaps this is Pankaj Mishra’s way of venting his anger against everything that was denied to him.